Over the past few weeks we’ve praised the Saints’ defense for their quick turnaround from 2012 – 2013 and the potential for the unit to continue to improve in 2014.
The major crux of their improvement will center on their ability to stop opponents from running the football. In 2013 they allowed 111 rushing yards per game earning themselves a ranking in the bottom half of the league (19th overall). That’s not to say that they were necessarily ‘bad’ against the run, but in a division with the likes of DeAngelo Williams, Doug Martin, Mike Tolbert, and oh yeah Cam Newton beefing up against the rush is going to be a key point moving forward.
As discussed on Monday it looks like the Saints have found their pass rusher of the future in Junior Galette. From here on out, any need at outside linebacker is going to have to be filled by a guy who can stop the run.
Last week Will Osgood discussed the changes we could see in the 2014 version of the defense, but he also agrees that a run-stopping outside linebacker is an area they will have to address before the season kicks off.
But where can they look to address the need?
There’s always the draft, and this year’s crop at outside linebacker/defensive end is as deep as it’s been in years. Personal taste leans me towards the likes of Kony Ealy to transition to the outside linebacker position, however questions surround his ability to make that transition (if he even manages to stay on the board until number 27). Dee Ford seems to be a more specialized pass rusher, and Ryan Shazier may be too undersized to take on pulling guards or seal edges.
A look at the free agent market doesn’t immediately present any solutions, however I would propose one player that could fill the void. James Harrison was released by the Bengals after having a relatively productive year in a new position. He was by no means the same dominant player he was in Pittsburgh, but the Saints don’t necessarily need that. They could move him back to a position he is more familiar with (3-4 outside linebacker) and use him in rotation with guys like Victor Butler and Parys Haralson (assuming they are retained). And we don’t need to mention the intensity, intimidation, and toughness he would bring to that unit as well.
Yes, Harrison has been public about wanting to play for the Steelers. But if the Saints make an offer, could he really look at both teams and say Pittsburgh has a better shot at getting him back to a Super Bowl? Of course the money would have to be right (and the pocket book in New Orleans must be pretty light by now), but I have to believe the Saints are more likely to make a championship run in the next five years than the Steelers.
Whichever direction the front office ends up going, one thing is clear: whoever plays outside linebacker for the Saints in 2014 is going to have to put in the effort to stop the run.